Threadgrass: You Can Grow That

It sounds too good to be true: an ornamental grass that loves heat and looks beautiful all year gently swaying in the wind. But threadgrass (Nasella tennuissima) fits the bill — and is waterwise. This pretty low-water plant also is called silky thread grass or Mexican feather grass.

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Can you spot the tightrope-walking lady bug on this threadgrass?

Texture and movement can add to a garden’s design nearly as much as shape and color. Threadgrass has a delicate, windswept form that serves as an attractive backdrop to low-growing flowering plants like sedums or verbena. In summer, the grass is a nice green with feathery ends. In winter, the airy flower heads take on a golden, wheat-like appearance. Threadgrass is deer resistant, has no known diseases or pests, and is a native plant that grows in zones 5 through 10.

Planting Threadgrass

Plant threadgrass in spring, summer or fall. Because it likes heat, you might be able to fill in a summer bare spot with threadgrass after weather is too hot for most garden plants. If you want a swaying meadow effect, you’ll need to plant a few, and then wait for them to reseed. If you want immediate effect, plant several. Just keep in mind the plant grows to about 12 inches wide.

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Young threadgrass plants that came up next to their mother plant.

Your threadgrass plants should reach about 18 to 24 inches high when fully grown, sometimes higher when blooming. Plant it in full sun and in most any kind of soil. When you first plant or transplant your threadgrass, give it a little extra water, especially in high heat.

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You also can bunch threadgrass for a meadow effect, like the grass in this Austin area garden.

Caring for Threadgrass

Once threadgrass is established, it should need nothing but rain water to grow and set seed. The plant is  a short-lived  perennial and should come back several years in a row, assuming typical low temperatures for the lower zones. It also reseeds (see below), creating new plants nearby. You can leave these to eventually replace the established ones, or dig them up and transplant them to another spot in your garden. They are easy to recognize.

threadgrass seedlings-dirt-near-large-plant
Tiny seedlings of threadgrass are easy to spot around other plants. Depending on where they show up and where you live, they are either free plants or invasive ones.

Each spring, as you begin pruning other plants in your garden, gently comb the grass blades with a fine rake and trim them for shape.

euphorbia-green-santolina-threadgrass
How perfect is the texture of the fine stems of threadgrass as part of this xeric plant grouping!

Caution for Some Gardeners

The fact that threadgrass replaces itself by sprouting tiny plants from seed is a bonus to me. We get just enough seedlings to move around our garden, without them being a problem. But in some areas, threadgrass can be invasive, reseeding in places where it interferes with other plants. In fact, the  plant is prohibited in California because it is so invasive there and can crowd out grasses native to coastal areas. It also can crowd out pasture grasses. We have had no problems with that, however, and have only seen the plants pop up near mature ones.

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Ornamental grass like threadgrass is great for lining pathways.

Not sure yet? Check out the short video of the grass moving in the winter breeze I posted on Southwest Gardening Blog’s Instagram page.

Enjoy growing threadgrass and other ornamental grasses in your low-water garden!

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5 Reasons Succulents Make Great Gifts

Not sure what to give a loved one, friend or co-worker as a holiday gift? You can’t beat succulents. Here are five reasons why:

1. Easy care, even for brown thumbs.

 

Although succulents can die, they are easier to care for than most plants. You can kill them only with kindness (too much water). And even leaves of heat-loving succulents can burn in direct sun. But they make great gifts for people who want a little green but have less than green thumbs. Keep it simple with common succulents like Echevaria or Sempervivum. Both plants come in pretty rosette shapes.

echevaria-sempervivum-in-small-clay-pots
Many succulents have pretty rosette shapes.

2. Succulents make people smile.

Partly because they’re easy, and maybe because of their fleshy, healthy-looking leaves or pads, these plants bring a touch of natural, living matter to the dullest setting. You can find popular ways of displaying succulents as décor. And if the recipient likes to live on the edge, a nice spiny cactus is a fun gift that could be the gateway to growing more houseplants.

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Succulent Love on display at Austin’s Articulture

3. Succulents grow in lots of container types.

A few weeks ago, I posted about growing cacti in containers. Succulents are so easy to plant in natural, pretty or quirky containers. Small ones can grow in tiny holes of rocks or driftwood. Air plants are even easier to grow in unique containers, since they require no soil.

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I love these white geometric succulent containers on a patio table in an Austin garden.

4. Adding a personal touch is easy.

So, maybe the succulent you choose for a gift isn’t so unique, but you plant it in a coffee cup with a message, or a souvenir that has sentimental value. You can use your sense of humor or a little romance when choosing how to present a small succulent – or several. Or select one based on the name (maybe String of Pearls?) You also can make your gift more personal with a small set of instructions on how to care for the plant. You can look for information online or write up how you take care of succulents.

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An old metal container with sentimental value holds this succulent.

5. They’re popular and available.

The trend in succulent plantings, arrangements and decoration on all sorts of materials might not last forever. But while it does, it is easy to find a great selection of succulents for gift-giving.

succulents on nursery shelf
Your local nursery greenhouse is sure to be loaded with lots of succulent choices.

Here are some favorite small succulents:

Echevaria, several varieties

Sempervivum (such as hens and chicks)

Sedum morganianum (Burro’s tail)

Euphorbia milii (Crown of Thorns) and it is thorny!

Crassula ovata (Jade plant)

Mamillaria crinita (Pincushion cactus)

Haworthia fasciata (Zebra plant)

haworthia-foliage
Harowthia is such a fun succulent, and it can send up a stem with yellow flowers.

Zwartkop (Aenonium arboretum)

Also, Tillandsias (airplants) come in lots of types and colors.

 

Grow—or Give—Container Cacti

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Succulents, and especially cactus plants, usually prefer heat and drought. That’s one reason they make such perfect plants for desert gardens. But in the high deserts or mountains of New Mexico and other Southwestern states, many cacti only can live outdoors in the summer. Enter containers…

cacti in fun containers bishop cap
These little cacti get great winter sun on a south-facing wall. They only travel outdoors in the warmest months. Two of these containers are thrift store finds.

Why Plant Cacti in Containers?

The best reason for planting cacti in containers is the flexibility it offers. You can move the plant throughout the year (carefully) to bring it outdoors when summer nights warm and indoors as frost approaches. But you also can move your cacti around to control temperature or sun exposure. Even succulents can burn from intense sun, so it is good to keep an eye on the plants and rotate or move them depending on sun, including sun from a south- or west-facing windows.

cacti and succulents in containers on shelf outdoor with shade fabric
Cacti and succulents sunning outside, but with a shade cloth during intense sunshine.

Another reason to plant cacti in containers is to isolate watering. When planted outside, especially near drip or other watering systems, cacti can get too much water. With containers, you can control cactus watering based on season and when the plant goes dormant. If you love the look of a cactus in your desert landscape, nothing says it has to be in the ground! If the water or temperature conditions are not ideal, place your cactus outside in a colorful container. Just remember – the outdoor container should have good drainage and can cool off more at night, so don’t leave a container cactus outdoors in winter unless it is hardy to at least 10 degrees cooler than your lowest low.

old man cactus in container, grass, rosemary
Here’s that old man cactus in the first photo, outside on the xeric garden wall in summer.

Finally, most cacti are slow growers, so you don’t’ have to repot them often. Other cacti spread out of control in the garden. You’ve probably seen a xeric yard in your neighborhood with prickly pear growing like a sprawling hedge, maybe onto the sidewalk. It is easier to control cacti when in the confines of a container.

Container Cactus Mix

Planting and caring for cacti in containers is easy, but the soil mix is crucial to success. If you plant a cactus in standard container potting mix, which is designed to help retain water, your cactus roots will get soggy and rot. You can buy special cactus mixes or make your own. Ask friends or local experts for ideas. Examples include adding 1 part coarse sand and 5 parts perlite (for airflow and drainage) to 4 parts of potting mix. Vermiculite also improves aeration but holds too much water. You also can add a little bit of rock dust or pumice to your mix.

spiny cactus in metal container
Handle container-planted cacti carefully, although the spines didn’t stop this wild daisy from seeding in the container.

Handle your cactus carefully while transplanting. You can use an old sock or towel to wrap around the plant near the base and lift it out of the pot. Or turn the pot with the cactus on its side, resting the plant on an old pillow (that you won’t use again) to cushion the plant while you pull the container off the root ball.

Old long-handled barbecue tongs are great tools for holding a cactus while you place it in its new container; or use regular tongs for smaller plants. The eraser side of a pencil works great for gently pressing soil down around smaller cacti.

tall columnar euphorbia in container
This columnar euphorbia (a succulent, but not a cactus) now only moves arouond inside. It is too tough to take out to the yard now.

Some Favorite Container Cacti

Some of these cacti are spinier than others, so you might want to be careful where you place them. Many will flower, especially in spring or early summer. And some can tolerate pretty cold temperatures, but still would be fun winter houseplants.

Barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii). The golden barrel and other barrel cacti are such great landscape plants, giving a pretty round shape to landscape designs. I especially love them on hills. But they’re only hardy to 15 to 17 degrees, so we keep ours in a container.

pencil cholla and golden barrel cactus in containers.
Pencil cholla on left and barrel cactus on right, wintering over in a sunny spot.

Pencil cholla (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis). Pencil cholla are pretty scary looking, with spines up to one inch long sticking out from tall, thin branches. They are hardy to -20 degrees and love heat, but spread easily in the yard.

Bishops cap (Astrophytum myriostigma). This is an attractive and slow-growing cactus perfect for a container, especially since it only can handle cold down to 20 degrees. I love the sort of grainy white and green look of the plant. See the second photo above. That is a bishops cap in the middle.

rounded cacti in round container
I love this circular arrangement of cacti in a shallow container.

Hedgehog cacti (Echinocereus). It’s native to the U.S. and Engelmanns hedgehog is most common throughout the Southwest. It’s spiny, but should produce bright pink flowers more than two inches across. The plant only reaches about 10 inches in height.

Fence post (Pachycereus maginatus). This is a columnar, almost regal cactus. The columns have ridges with small spines and when planted in a row, they form an excellent wall. Columnar cacti are great choices for planting in containers of homes with high ceilings or to simply provide height behind a grouping of houseplants. They just need plenty of filtered sun.

cactus and ocotillo in outdoor container
I love this vertical planting with ocotillo we spotted at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson.

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). It’s hard to imagine this sprawling cactus in a container, but it can be done. It will need summer heat and can survive temperatures down to 20 below freezing. So, the garden can work, but you can control ocotillo growth in a container and enjoy it as a rising backdrop to other cacti or succulents.

Old man cactus (Cephalocereus senilis). This is by far one of my favorite cacti. But it needs to stay in temperatures above 46 degrees, despite its shaggy layer of “hair.” This is another slow grower, and often a conversation starter in a home!

Spineless prickly pear (Opuntia canacapa). For the look of a gorgeous green and juicy cactus pad and no spines, go with this pretty plant. It still will grow new pads, but you can cut them off or plant them elsewhere. Both regular and hardy prickly pears can survive temperatures down to zero.

clay pot with several vertical cacti outside on patio
Cactus containers on a patio in an Austin, Texas, garden.

 

 

Christmas Cactus: You Can Grow That!

leaves and pink blossoms christmas cactus

Holiday flowers like paperwhites and amaryllis are fun and beautiful, but in the Southwest, we love succulents, and the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) is a fall and winter favorite in our homes.

A red Christmas cactus blossom. Image from Pixabay.

The Christmas cactus loads up with delicate flowers each winter, assuming you take a few steps to force the blooms. That might sound intimidating, but it really is simple. The blooms appear on small, flat “leaves,” which are really stem segments. Closely related plants – all with a holiday “theme” – are the Thanksgiving cactus (S. truncates) and the Easter cactus (Schlumbergeragaertneri). You can guess the approximate times each should bloom. There are some differences in the stem shapes, but overall care is similar.

Schlumbergera plants were discovered in Brazil’s rain forests, where they grow as epiphytes on trees or other plants without stealing their nutrients.  That makes them less parasitic than another holiday favorite, mistletoe.

The flowers have a long, tubular shape and truly are remarkable, especially considering they appear on an indoor succulent! Between all schlumbergera varieties, you can find red, salmon, white and orange blooms, as well as some bicolor flowers.

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Beautiful white Christmas cactus blossom. Image from Pixabay.

Here’s how to get your Christmas cactus to bloom: Place it in a dark closet in fall, usually around late September or early October. Once buds begin to form on the ends of the stem sections, after about a month or two of darkness, bring the plant out into natural light, but not to an extreme temperature or direct sunlight.

christmas cactus in pot
This plant has been in a dark closet for about 35 days.

Christmas cactus thrives best in indoor temperatures (about 55 to 70 degrees F). Even though these are cacti, they come from a naturally humid setting. Mist the leaves from time to time and let the soil barely dry out between watering so it is consistently and lightly moist, but don’t overwater or let the plant sit in water.

christmas cactus and other plants on adobe wall
Two of the plants lined our sunny wall last winter.

Once your Christmas cactus blooms, the flowers last about a week, assuming they get some sun and appropriate water. The chain of blooming should last about a month. Some say the plant is unattractive when not blooming, but I disagree. I find the cascading form of the stems and their thick, succulent appearance attractive all year.

christmas cactus stems close
The fleshy stems of a Christmas cactus are attractive even when it lacks blooms.

This plant is easy to grow, and you often get blooms without following any of the advice about dark periods. We’ve had blooms at various times of the year, and I’m okay with that. I just enjoy the plant, no matter when it rewards us with those fabulous flowers. You can find Christmas cactus in nurseries and just about anywhere this time of year. The plant makes a great gift.

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5 Easy Plants for Xeric Gardens

Xeric plants are smart, easy-care choices simply because they need little watering once established. Still, I’m sure some people avoid trying new plants, or opt for mostly gravel, to lessen time needed caring for ornamental plants.

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Desert zinnia adorns this low-water rock garden.

I’ve got five great options for Southwest gardeners, each hardy in our zone 6B garden and during summer heat. Although all are not technically xeric, they can thrive with little to no watering other than rain. Mostly, these plants need very little care, so try something new this year!

Yarrow

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Moonshine yarrow is easy to care for, transplant and grow in low-water gardens.

Yarrow (Achillea sp). Yarrow is an herb, and a close relative of chamomile. Yarrow is said to aid digestion or heal wounds when applied as a pulp. Take a look at the scientific name (ever heard of Achilles and his heel?) and you can see how many years people have used yarrow for medicinal purposes. Achilles is said to have applied yarrow tinctures to heal and prevent wounds.

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Here’s a closer look at yarrow blooms. Pollinators love them as landing pads.

I grow yarrow because it’s pretty, attracts pollinators, and is one of the easiest perennials to maintain. Technically, yarrow needs a little more water than other low-water plants when summer temperatures hover at 90 degrees and higher, but our plants have made it through many seasons with one spring watering and natural rain after that. They’re hardy in zones 5 through 8. You can cut the spent blooms off to encourage more flowering. But for easy care, leave them on the plant, especially in cooler regions. or cut them back all at once for a second bloom in warmer climates. When trimming, you’ll probably see some tiny flowers close to the leaves that should shoot up and open. We’ve transplanted several yarrow plants with no trouble.

Ornamental Grasses

In windy areas, ornamental grasses stun in the garden. We often place them as single plants in a grouping of others, but I love the look of a row or grouping of the same grass in the landscape. Even those that aren’t native tend to need less water than some plants, since they don’t truly flower, but can produce lovely stalks topped with seeds. And you can mix textures, colors and heights for landscape interest. There are so many choices!

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Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora Karl Foerster) in our dry river bed in midsummer.

Even those grasses that aren’t native need little care and use little water. A few (like Silky threadgrass) can spread, but you only need to pull or dig up the tiny starts in early spring to control where they grow. We like to add one annual such as Purple Fountain Grass (Pennisetum secateum ‘Rubrum’) each year for color pop, but our other grasses make it through winter.

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The flower stalks of Purple Fountain Grass.

Just check to see average zones. For example, the Purple Fountain Grass can overwinter in zones 8 through 11. And ask whether your favorite is a warm-season or cool-season grass; that helps you know when to plant it and whether it will survive winter or need a little shade in the heat of summer. All you have to do is shear back the foliage each spring as the grass begins to green at the base. So, so easy.

Prairie Zinnia

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Prairie or desert zinnia spreads easily in sunny, dry locations.

Prairie or desert zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora), is an easy and attractive groundcover with sunny yellow flowers that grows in zones 4 through 9. The plant is native to New Mexico, Arizona and parts of southern Colorado, so it’s hardy in Southwestern soils and survives drought. Ours were already in our garden, and I have heard that the plant can be a little challenging to get started. My guess is excited gardeners plant the zinnias too soon, before soils have warmed. Ours cascade down a rock wall, coming up each year in little soil, but plenty of warmth from the rocks. The rocky soil also drains well, which likely helps keep the plants healthy and spreading at just the right rate (not invasive). The foliage browns in winter, but is so small it doesn’t look messy. All I do each year is put on my gloves and gently pull away the dead foliage when I see it greening up at the bottom. Once you do that, the plants get the sun they need and begin growing and flowering.

Gopher Spurge

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The foliage stalks of gopher spurge are attractive all year long.

Gopher spurges (Euphorbia rigida) are among few plants that handle extreme cold (down to -20 degrees) and the high heat of zone 11. The plant is called gopher spurge because it has been said to repeal gophers, but I’m not sure there is any proof of that, or anything at all that truly repels the underground destroyers. I can say that ours have survived, save some deer chomping. The stalks that were eaten succumbed to cold, but I just cut them off at the base of the plant.

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Gopher spurge blooms early in our zone 6B xeric garden. This is in March.

Otherwise, our gopher spurge has grown nearly a foot in one year and was among the earliest flowering plants in our spring garden. We also have a Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’ we bought locally last year, and the foliage alone is beautiful. This newer plant also has survived winter and is beginning to bud out. All you have to do is cut off stems after the seeds ripen; new stalks will come up and you can enjoy the silver-green or colorful rainbow foliage all year. Gopher spurge and many other Euphorbias are succulents, so they’re lovers of sun, heat and low water.

Coreopsis

It’s the year of the Coreopsis! And I’m so glad. The native flowering plant is so versatile. It looks beautiful in rock gardens or more formal landscapes. Just place coreopsis in well-draining soil and most perennial varieties should be hardy from zones 4 through 9. Sometimes called tickseed, coreopsis comes in several varieties and deer seem to ignore the plants. Because the native plants tend to come  up along ditch banks or other disturbed areas they tend to easily grow in any Southwest garden conditions. The bright yellow blooms of Lanceleaf and Grandiflora coreopsis are common, and breeders have grown new varieties of Coreopsis with color variations.

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Tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata Sterntaler) blooms all summer with a little deadheading or shearing.

Deadheading flowers as they dry up will keep them blooming, but if you find deadheading takes too much time, wait until a good flush of blooms has begun to die back and shear the flower stalks off all at once; you should get more blooms.

Favorite Flower: Nigella

I just discovered this delicate, early bloomer in the past few years when friends suggested Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascene) seeds from our local iris farm. The foliage looks much like fennel or dill as seedlings sprout, and nigella also is called fennel flower.

pink, purple and white love in a mist flowers
Love in a mist grows from between rocks bordering our xeric garden.

Nigella Is Versatile

We grew multicolored love in a mist in our rock garden. Tim threw the seeds out in fall and by mid-spring, we had fine fern-like leaves popping up from between the rocks. Although Nigella does best in damp sandy soil, ours grew out from under rocks that make up the walls of our xeric garden. The rocks likely held moisture longer than a spot in the open might have. The rocks also trapped the tiny seeds so fewer blew away. Plus, nigella can tolerate dry conditions.

Nigella in rocks at steps in garden.
Here are the same flowers from a wider angle — in the corner to the right of the potted geranium.

But then we tried another approach – we bought a packet of Bridal Veil (Heirloom White Nigella) seeds from Renee’s Garden and sowed them in early summer in a blank spot of our vegetable garden. This soil is far better in quality, and the seeds received consistent drip watering. The flowers were taller and stunningly white, with maroon to black centers. The plants reproduce from seeds, assuming some seedheads are left on plants at the end of the season.

bridal veil white Nigella.
These heirloom bridal veil flowers thrived in our vegetable garden and the contrast of colors is gorgeous and fun.

Sow in Fall or Spring

Although most instructions for growing nigella say to sow in spring, you can sow them in fall in areas with mild winters. They need full sun and grow in zones 2 through 10. That worked well for us last year, but this winter has been dry and consistently colder, so I’m anxious to see how many reseeded in our gardens. The bridal veil flowers in our vegetable garden bloomed later in the year, but were planted later. Sowing the seeds a few weeks apart in spring and fall can help ensure constant blooming of nigella in summer.

overhead view of love in a mist
The many colors of love in a mist add interest to the garden or flower arrangements.

Use as a Cut Flower

You can cut nigella blooms for flower arrangements, and even better, cut some of the seedheads. If you cut the flowers to enjoy indoors, leave a few blossoms on the plant so they can dry and drop seeds for the next year. If you get too many, thin them out while small. Enjoy the seedheads after flowering by cutting their stems just after flowers fade, and hang them upside down away from direct sun.

nigella seedpod and flower
Nigella seedhead after blooming alongside remaining white flower.

Nigella is easy to grow and a great addition to any xeric garden!

nigella seedpod
A nigella seedpod. I can’t wait to try drying some of these this summer.

 

 

 

 

 

A Trip to the Dark Side of Gardening

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Datura, or Jimson weed bloom.

When we write about gardening and post on social media, garden writers usually choose bright, pretty pink flowers or robust tomatoes as our subjects. Yet, many plant lovers can enjoy flowers and also get a kick out of growing edgier plants.

I live with one such plant lover. In fact, he loves spines and poisonous seeds so much that our daughter and son-in-law gave him Amy Stewart’s book Wicked Plants, The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities (Algonquin Books, 2009) for Christmas last year. He likes to read it right before nodding off at night…

jimson weed plant
Jimson weed is not a pretty plant but the flowers are gorgeous, especially for an evening garden.

I thought I’d share with you some of Stewart’s insights into wicked plants, and list several that thrive in our entryway or rock garden.

Datura and Nightshades

Several deadly plants make up the nightshade, or Solanaceae, family. The one we grow every year (it comes back with a vengeance) is Jimson weed, or Datura stramonium. The entire plant is somewhat poisonous, but the real danger lies in the seeds inside the fruit pod that remains after the flowers fade.

datura seed
The seed head of a Datura.

I admit I love the flowers and watching hummingbird moths feed off the blooms, which open at dusk. According to Stewart, Jamestown colonists found out the hard way about the toxic alkaloids in Jimson weed. In fact, the name has evolved from its original moniker of “Jamestown weed.” The Jimson weed is the dry cousin of other toxic nightshades and grows naturally in some of the worst conditions of the desert Southwest.

angels trumpet flower
Angel’s trumpet flower in a Pasadena garden.

Castor Bean

Castor bean (Ricinus communis) is a member of the Euphorbiaceae family. It’s known for the ricin in the plant’s beans. Eating only a few of the seeds can kill a person. Like the Jimson weed, the toxic beans grow on an otherwise gorgeous plant. In full sun, we’ve had them shoot from seed to 10 feet tall in a summer growing season. The large leaves of the plants we’ve grown turn a dark bronze color. Also like the Jimson weed, the fruit can explode when dried out and scatter the toxic seeds. if you decide to plant this potentially deadly ornamental, you must remain vigilant about cutting off the fruit. I don’t have photos of our castor beans, probably because I keep a distance. But here is a link to more information and some excellent images of the plant and beans.

crown of thorns and pencil cholla
Crown of thorns and a pencil cholla add a little danger to our home’s hallway.

Spiny Euphorbias

The spinier and spikier, the better for our sunny hallway. Relatives of the castor bean in the spurge family include the lovely Crown of Thorns (Euphorbia milii). It also has a sticky, white sap called latex that can irritate the skin. I can’t imagine any animal chomping on the thorny branches, but I’ve seen deer eat rose branches, so it’s good to make sure dogs don’t eat the euphorbia. Euphorbias also include poinsettias, which are not truly poisonous, but can cause irritation if the toxins from leaves contact your eyes or stomach problems if children or pets eat the leaves.

larkspur plants in rock garden
Larkspur plants that reseeded and bloomed in early summer.

Larkspur

Stewart includes larkspur among her “Dreadful Bouquet” flowers. Larkspur is a member of the Delphinium family, and sometimes, the names are interchangeable. Plains larkspur plants are found throughout high plains of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. The plant has dangerous levels of alkaloids in seeds, flowers, sap and leaves and can lead to death in cattle who consume the plains flowers at and after flowering. I love the early spring blooms of larkspur, which reseed between rocks in our garden and took over most of a bed last year. I’ve never seen deer damage, and as long as I wear gloves when handling the plant and avoid taking bites of it, I’m good.

pink and violet larkspurs
I wear gloves when I tend to these pretty Larkspurs.

Oleanders

Oleanders are popular shrubs and hedges in warmer Southwest climates (zones 8 through 10). They have long, slender leaves and colorful flowers. Because the plants grow quickly and need little care, they’re popular choices in landscapes. The plant’s sticky sap carries several toxins, including oleandrin, which can cause nausea and vomiting and affect heartbeat. People have been known to commit suicide by eating the plant, but the main concern is to keep curious children away, since it takes eating less to make them seriously ill. It’s too cold here to grow oleander, but we have a beautiful cousin of the plant that has a similar milky sap, a Desert Rose (Adenium), that we keep as a houseplant in winter.

Adenium with blooms
The desert rose, or Adenium, is a cousin of the oleander bush.

Poppies

The poppy (Papaveraceae) is a favorite Southwest plant. Many species of poppies have toxins that can hurt animals. After all, Papaver Somniferum is the plant that supplies opium. The opium poppy is illegal to grow, but seldom regulated, says Stewart. That’s largely because of how many plants it would take to supply an individual with enough opium to maintain a habit. Our poppies have spiky leaves that distinguish them from the smoother foliage of an opium poppy.

white Oriental poppy flower
A white Oriental poppy bloom.

Other Common but Wicked Plants

Stewart’s book breaks down dangerous plants by plant families and other categories, such as phototoxic plants. These have sap that can burn the skin when exposed to light and include the rinds of limes and other citrus fruits.

Lobelia plant in top of container
Lobelia is an annual here with small, delicate flowers like those I placed in the top of this tiny chiminea.

One of our favorite summer annuals is Lobelia, which also is called Indian tobacco because some ingredients in the plants cause effects similar to nicotine. In small amounts, lobelia can’t hurt you, but it can be toxic in large doses if used as an herbal remedy. I also love, love, the red bird of paradise, another warm climate ornamental shrub. But Even sweet peas and tulips have toxins in various parts of the plants or bulbs.

red bird of paradise bloom
The gorgeous, fiery bloom of a red bird of paradise.

The bottom line is this: All gardeners should use caution when choosing plants for their home or garden to make sure curious pets and children are safe (this is an extensive list of both, and toxicity ratings, from California Poison Control). On the other hand, growing a spiny or dangerous plant can appeal to adults and older children, and be a great introduction into plant care and the gardening bug!

 

Five Low-water Plants for Winter Birds

stellar jay in garden
Stellar jay in line for raw peanuts in late fall.

As winter drags on, birds need lots of energy and shelter from the elements and predators. The best bird habitats mix shelter, water, natural seeds and nest-building material as spring approaches. Native plants offer many of these benefits, and the more varied a landscape, the more bird-friendly it is. For example, birds in our garden “stage” their visits to feeders or the ground by moving between the thorniest rose bushes and higher trees.

woodpecker and sparrow on bird feeder
Birds use low bushes as staging spots before visiting the feeder in our redbud.

Here are five plants or plant types that make birds safer and happier when temperatures drop without adding a lot to your work, or to summer watering requirements.

stellar jay on ground in rock garden
We have lots of spots in our garden where jays hide peanuts.

Native grasses

blue grama grass meadow
Blue grama and wildflower meadow. The grama seed spreads and feeds birds, who also help disperse the seed further for us.

Replacing at least some of your turf with native grasses and other native plants helps birds and uses less water. We purposefully leave our native grasses (mostly buffalo and blue grama) long as it dies back in fall to increase  shots at reseeding and filling in bare spots. The seeds also provide food for ground-hopping birds, additional food caches for jays to hide the raw peanuts we put out, and dried grass stalks for nests before the grass greens in summer.

Ornamental grasses

Karl Foerster grass
Karl Foerster grass in a new dry river bed, next to volunteer blanket flower.

Switchgrass, big bluestem and muhly grasses all provide seeds and nesting materials for birds. Karl Foerster feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora “Karl Foerster”) attracts birds and is a beautiful winter plant, with tall seed stalks that blow in the breeze. There are hundreds of species of the grass, and it grows in zones 5 through 9. Its water requirements are a little higher than some native grasses, but if you plant Karl Foerster grass in a rain garden or low spot, it will get more water naturally and won’t be hurt by the damp soil.

Barberry

barberry
New barberry (upper right) not far from our bird feeder.
barberry foliage
Deep red barberry foliage on right contrasts nicely with gazanias.

Barberry (Berberus) is a hardy shrub with small thorns along its branches. Depending on the variety you choose, you’ll enjoy deep red or pinkish foliage. The shrubs grow in zones 3 through 8 and retain their leaves in winter in most conditions. Fragrant yellow flowers emerge in spring, and the prickly branches provide good cover for small birds. You can plant several barberries a few feet closer together than recommended to create an attractive, bird-friendly hedge.

Boxwood

boxwood and pyracantha near New Mexico home entry
The wedding dress only hung by the front door momentarily, but the boxwood (left) and pyracantha (right) prune into welcoming shapes. Image courtesy Jessican Inman Photography.

Boxwood (Buxus) normally isn’t considered a low-water plant, and I’ve seen countless examples of boxwood to form formal hedges and designs in other areas of the country. It is an easy plant to shape, and makes such a good hedge because its evergreen foliage is so dense.  That’s also why birds love boxwood. Although boxwood might look a little formal for a native rock garden, we use ours as a foundation plant near our front door, where we want a more landscaped effect. Since it’s also on the north side of the house, I’m sure birds hide under the bush for cover. The boxwood’s protected, mostly shady location and slow growth habit help the shrub stay healthy with less water than it might need in a sunny spot.

Pyracantha

pyracantha berries
Partially eaten berries on a pyracantha bush in fall.

Pyracantha shrubs produce berries in late fall to feed birds as temperatures drop. Also a thorny bush (sometimes called Firethorn), pyracanthas provide safe shelter for birds. What I love about the shrub is the diverse ways you can use it in a Southwest landscape. Leave it to grow naturally (maybe with some shoot trimming after rainy summers) or shape it like a hedge. We had several growing along a distant fence and Tim moved one to the front of the house. The pyracantha transplanted without a blink and just a few scratches. We leave the remaining two out in the yard in their natural state and shape the one in front of the house. I get to see the berries from my kitchen window and saw a Stellar jay eating them this past fall.

goldfinch in Apache plume
A finch waits his turn for thistle in o a native Apache plume shrub.

Many native shrubs  attract birds in winter. Berries, seeds and bushy cover all support wildlife. Ask your local nursery or master gardeners for the best low-water plants in your Southwest zone.

Select Plants Now for Your Xeric Garden

The new year is almost upon us, but gardeners don’t have to wait until spring to dream, plan and even shop for new plants.

xeric garden color container
Combine native xeric plants and a few container flowers for long-lasting color.

You can take some time in winter to plan your garden. Doing so usually cheers my mood and makes me feel like I’m getting something done, even if I can’t do much outside. Here are a few tips for Southwest gardeners for winter planning and shopping.

Check Out New Plant Introductions

Each year, breeders offer new plants adaptable to conditions or resistant to diseases. Many independent testing organizations and growers conduct trials to see how plants fare in harsh conditions such as heat or drought. A favorite regional source is Plant Select in Colorado. The nonprofit organization tests and creates plants for the Rocky Mountains. You can search or browse their plant selections for zone, soil type, sun exposure, water needs and other characteristics. A new 2017 selection is the Sungari redbead cotoneaster (Cotoneaster racemiflorus var. soongoricus). The shrub is a hardy plant and fall stunner in a xeriscape.

sungari redbead cotoneaster
Plant Select’s Sungari redbead cotoneaster grows to six to eight feet tall. Image courtesy of PlantSelect.

All-America Selections also releases trial information on ornamental plants and vegetables each year. Although some of the plants are not suited for New Mexico gardens, AAS includes regional winners for the Mountain/Southwest region. For example, its 2018 winners include Mexican Sunrise Hungarian Pepper F1. This past summer, I sowed 2017 national winner Dianthus Interspecific Supra Pink F1 seeds in a garden bed and the plant bloomed well into fall. You can find AAS winners at retailers that carry national brands such as Bonnie and Burpee plants or seeds (Johnny’s selected Seeds or Territorial Seed Company).

dianthus AAS winner
Dianthus Interspecific Supra Pink from Alll America Selections.

Regional growers and local nurseries often carry new plant introductions. Typically, you can learn about new plants by subscribing to the company’s newsletter or by following them on social media. High Country Gardens (whose chief horticulturalist, David Salman, is from New Mexico) recently released a list of new plants the company offers in 2018.

Finally, the Sunset Western Garden Collection is designed specifically for Western gardeners. Sunset lists a collection of waterwise plants, but you might have to do some research to find out where to buy the plants you spot there.

Order and Review Seed Catalogs

Growing plants from seed takes a little more work, but can save you money. And some plants do better grown directly in the ground (cucumbers and squash come to mind). Even though you’ll have more success and save water by growing plants suited to your region, it’s fun to shop for rare or unusual annuals for containers or other special spots in your garden. It’s much less expensive to buy seeds for plants that probably won’t make it through the winter.

Cosmos in xeric garden
Cosmos are a perfect annual to grow from seed in a xeric garden. Too much water makes them leggy. And they feed bees in bloom and birds when seeding out.

Most seed companies ship catalogs for free to anyone who requests them and I’ve been receiving mine since before the holidays. In addition, you can find online versions of most seed catalogs. Flipping through catalogs can give you great ideas about new or unusual plants or even inspire where to plant them or ideas for companion plants for a particular flower or shrub.

vegetable starts in sun
Vegetable starts sunning in a south-facing window last spring.

Read and Research

Catalogs are one source of plant ideas, but local and regional gardening books and blogs should be your go-to sources. Combining information on plants featured in your favorite gardening books with catalogs and new introductions can help you begin planning and shopping.

scrub jay in xeric garden
This scrub jay uses low-growing xeric plants for stashing peanuts.

In your research, look for ideas such as drought-tolerant plants for easy care, plants for birds and pollinators, or colors and textures you long to add to your garden. Think about herbs and vegetables your family loves and see if you can grow a variety within your space or time constraints. And always read books and websites with a critical eye for credible information and plants most likely to grow in your zone, soil type, sun exposure or water availability.

If you don’t have a good gardening book specific to your state or zone, find out if your local master gardeners have published a plant or gardening guide. And check out my Resources page for books and links on gardening in New Mexico, xeric gardening and other topics.

hummingbird on hyssop
High Country Gardens and other regional companies offer low-water and native plants that attract hummingbirds and add color to your garden.

Shop Locally and Online

Some gardeners prefer to touch and see plants in person, at least to decide on colors or shapes they like. Just beware that some chain stores offer plants each year that aren’t suited to your region or at least offer fewer plants tested for Southwest and xeric gardens. For example, no retailers in New Mexico offer Plant Select products, but High Country Gardens sells Plant Select through its catalog and online store. Shopping, or at least researching, online also can save time. Many online catalogs have search filters. You might be able to search by plant name, bloom color, bloom time or average temperatures and rainfall.

Many online nurseries let you order now and then ship your plants at the best possible time in spring for your zone. So, there’s really no reason you can’t get a head start. Happy plant shopping!